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Volga-Germans' way of life passed down through generations


More tightly wrapped in tradition than a meatball in a cabbage leaf, Ellis and Rush County Volga-Germans personify a culture of immigrants whose search for a homeland spanned 200 years and led them from Germany to Russia to the United States.

Arriving in western Kansas in 1876, the Volga-Germans began patterning villages throughout Ellis and Rush counties upon their former villages along the Volga River Region of Russia.

In 1876 and 1877, the settlements of Liebenthal, Catharine, Herzog, Munjor, Pfeifer and Schoenchen were established. The first Volga-German immigrants made their homes in creek bank holes, board tents or sod houses, in an almost untouched prairie.

Norbert Dreiling, in his 1976 book, "Official Centennial History of the Volga-German Settlements in Ellis and Rush Counties," expanded on the difficulties faced by the immigrants.

"Frontier demands eliminated profit possibilities unless a man was willing to desert his prior standard of living, exist in a dugout and work day and night to stay alive. The early Volga-Germans were willing to pay that price."

Some settlers worked for the railroad, laying tracks to Colorado, others labored on ranches, saving their paychecks for down payment on their own farmland.

Nearly every Volga-German home had a large vegetable garden to feed the growing families that populated the villages. Home-canning of meats, fruits and vegetables was a primary project for the families.

Traditional recipes were central to celebrations such as Christmas, Easter, Hochzeits (weddings), and church and community dinners. The recipes varied somewhat from village to village and have been passed down through the generations.

Some of those local favorites include: bratwurst, knockwurst, zitter, kuchen, sour soup, bierocks and cabbage rolls.

It's unlikely Ellis and Rush County immigrants celebrated Oktoberfest, a 16-day festival that originated in Munich, Germany, in 1810. It is, however, not unlikely they might embrace the tradition local organizers adapted from the Munich festival by bringing Oktoberfest to western Kansas 40 years ago.

The Volga-German tradition of celebrating food, friends and music lends itself to the Oktoberfest spirit.

In remembering the exodus of those immigrants who braved the wild and desolate prairie, it is only fitting to raise a glass out of respect for their perseverance and gutsiness -- qualities that added a special flavor to western Kansas.

Dawne Leiker is a reporter at The Hays Daily News.